On July 20, 1969, more than half a billon people tuned in to see Neil Armstrong become the first man to walk on the surface of the moon. As Armstrong famously said on the air, the event proved to be “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of that historic Apollo 11 mission that inspired a generation of people, including astronaut Alvin Drew, who at the time was a student at St. Anthony Catholic School in Washington.

Drew was in his kindergarten classroom during the Apollo 7 launch in October 1968 and remembers the school’s principal pulling out a TV set and telling them, “You need to remember where you were today. History is about to be made.”

“I watched the rocket take off and I thought, ‘What in the world was that?’” Drew recalled during a Feb. 2018 interview with the Catholic Standard. “She explained how we were going to go to the moon. I was 5 and a half, and I knew a couple of things by that point. I knew that you couldn’t get to the moon; it was all the way up in the sky and this was crazy, but she told me to keep watching. When we got [to the moon] about a year later, I was hooked on that.”

Nearly 40 years later, Drew went to space for the first time. Then, in 2011, he became the 200th person to walk in space as a part of NASA’s final space shuttle flight, Discovery. During that mission, Drew also began a reading program for children, titled, “Story Time in Space,” where he read books to kids via satellite, including “Max Goes to the Moon,” written by Jeffrey Bennett.

He invited several of his teachers from St. Anthony to attend the launch of the Discovery flight, and most of them did travel to Florida to attend. One of these people was Benedictine Sister Ursula Butler, his first grade teacher who had witnessed the beginning of Drew’s dream to become an astronaut.

“Going into space gives you a profound change of perspective on things. You do the space walk, literally the entire earth is on one side of you, and the entire universe is on the other side of you 13.5 billion light-years out into its distant reaches. And it makes you feel very insignificant,” Drew said. “You realize that everything you’ve experienced, everything you care about, everyone who is important to you is in that little sheath of air that is on this little dot on this big, vast universe, and it is very humbling to think about that.

NASA recently announced plans to return to the moon by 2024, with the intention of bringing new technologies to gather information that they will then use to send astronauts to Mars.

Drew estimated that people will be going to Mars sometime in the 2030s, which means, “the people who are going to walk on Mars are in the halls of places like St. Anthony’s right now, going to school,” he said.

“They are cranking out future explorers, future astronauts,” Drew said. “…NASA and other places are not going to get there without them, so these people literally are the future.”

Colonel Benjamin Alvin Drew Jr. talks to students at St. Anthony Catholic School in Washington, which he attended for elementary and middle school. Drew flew on two space shuttle flights, including Discovery, NASA’s final space shuttle flight to the International Space Station in 2011. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

The moon landing and the age of space exploration that surrounded it also inspired Father Peter Giovanoni, the pastor of St. Michael’s Church in Ridge, Maryland, who went on to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy. He said the moon landing is one of his earliest memories, and remembers vividly watching it as a six year old on his family’s television, which he thinks they bought specifically for that purpose.

Father Giovanoni was raised by two Catholic engineers, so he has never seen science and faith as separate realms. He recalls that growing up, “some years I was going to be a priest and some years I was going to be a scientist.” He says looking at research and exploration through the eyes of faith allows people to see it as a part of a wider picture.

“Because there is an overall source to the order of the universe, things have a connection,” he said.

In an August 2017 interview with the Catholic Standard, Father Giovanoni said, “discovering a deeper and more profound truth about anything excites me.”

“That is my pursuit in life,” he continued. “…I want to be the explorer, I want to find out something more, something deeper in whatever it is, and that attraction ultimately leads me to God, the deepest of all things.”

Father Peter Giovanoni observes an August 2017 solar eclipse outside of St. Michael's School in Ridge, Maryland. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

During a January 2017 lecture at a benefit dinner for The Lay Centre in Rome, held at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in Washington, Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ, the director of the Vatican Observatory, likewise said the study of astronomy and the universe that God created is “an act of getting closer to the creator.”

Just as Drew said being in space humbled him and made him feel insignificant, Brother Consolmagno said, “the universe is so big; I’m so small, the fact that God still cares about me shows how infinite God is.”

“We grow up calling God our Father, but only as we study astronomy do we realize God who has a personal relationship with me is also the God who made all that,” he continued.

Brother Consolmagno also said the study of astronomy can be a unifying force, just as the moon landing was for the half a billion people who all tuned in to watch it 50 years ago.

“It is something that draws all of us out of our daily lives…The stars overhead shine on good and evil alike. They shine regardless of who is president,” he said. “…It is a place where people of every faith, every belief and every background can come together.”

As people of faith join in the celebration of the anniversary of the moon landing, Father Giovanoni said he hopes people remember how “wonder at the creation can also lead you into thankfulness to the Creator.”

For him, “the desire to explore, to learn, and to get to know this other existence” was “a reflection of the greater love between God and His people,” he said. “You can see it and enjoy it, but also recognize it as an analogy of a lesser form of the greater love out there.”